How Britain missed Poland’s rise

Roderick Parkes, April 2013


Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski. Photo: The Council of the European Union

January saw a rather revealing exchange. Radek Sikorski, Polish foreign minister, was quoted as saying that if the UK really intends to marginalise itself in the EU, the Poles were ready to take its place. Only in a very literal sense surely, the British replied - census data had just confirmed Polish as Britain’s second language.

Even if the quote was exaggerated, it reveals quite a mismatch of perceptions. Poles want to establish their country as a top-5 EU member within the next decade. By contrast, the UK’s recent debate on EU immigration confirms perceptions about Poles as needy workers who prefer even a crisis-hit UK to returning home. “Puffed up”, a recent Daily Telegraph article called Sikorski.

So who’s right? Continental EU watchers are certainly enthusiastic about Poland’s prospects in the EU. And, although this sometimes betrays more than a whiff of Twitter-fishing (“Poland is the only country showing leadership in the EU, @sikorskiradek”), it does seem the Brits have missed something.

Poland has been playing a good game recently. In 2010, The Economist welcomed what it saw as the shift from Romanticism to Realism in its foreign policy – prickly, historically-driven fears replaced by hard-headed efforts to forge relations with Germany and Russia and to achieve a less emotional relationship with the US.

If British commentators have lost enthusiasm, though, it is because they believe Poland has lost sight of reality. Teetering on the edge of the middle-income trap, the simple sources of its economic growth falling away, Poland has little chance of long-term international influence, they believe, especially if it slavishly follows Germany into the eurozone.

They are, however, missing the point: Poland’s influence depends not just on its economic health but precisely on its precariousness. Positioned on the crosshairs of Europe’s geopolitical fault-lines, dropping off the US’s radar, dependent on Russian energy, and leaning on the EU budget, Poland’s position is inherently uncertain.

Yet, it has found means of coping. Indeed, if Poland’s foreign policy really must be a genre, then it is probably postmodernism. Not the beret-and-pencil-moustache kind of postmodernism, mind, but rather a growing boldness in the face of uncertainty, a refusal to be cowed by difficulty and an enjoyment of ambitious ideas.

In a speech to the Sejm on 20 March, Sikorski set out his thinking. Poland is on the periphery, exposed by its physical position, its non-membership of the euro, and by the latent threat of EU implosion. The way to overcome that, he believes, is by bold engagement in the EU, dragging the bloc eastwards and giving it more global clout.

Such thinking matters in the EU, which is itself a response to the eternal threat of international chaos and uncertainty. As noted by one Blairite commentator in his essay “The Post Modern State”, rather than accept order imposed by a hegemon, Europeans have aimed for a more equitable system of deep regional cooperation.

Yet, the system created by these well-intentioned states – the German hegemon included – has turned ugly. Stronger members hold chaos at bay through control-freakery and interference in other members' affairs. The only leverage the rest enjoy comes from the knowledge that their weaknesses are now everyone’s weaknesses.

At its best, the Polish approach offers the EU a more attractive way of dealing cooperatively with uncertainty: increasing the EU’s scope to stabilise its international environment; creating certainty by signalling to partners the bloc’s readiness for action; making bold ideas a source of influence whilst others dither.

In this way, decisiveness and commitment become a means of re-establishing sovereignty in a heavily inter-dependent global environment. And, even as enthusiasm for the EU diminishes in most member states, Poland’s pro-Europeanness enjoys grudging respect. This is because it is clearly different.

If there is tension between Poland and the UK, then, it is not because the pair are similar-minded countries who are competing for the same terrain, nor because Poland is profiting from the UK’s slow exit from the bloc. Rather, it is because the two are in many ways mirror opposites in terms of historical experience.

Both on the periphery, both situated between large European states and an even larger foreign power, both undergoing definitive national experiences in the choppy 18th Century, Poland suffered whilst the UK flourished. Now, however, the tables seem to be turning.

Poland’s misfortunes prepared it for today’s world, and it has successfully combined a famously strong national identity and reading of the national interest with the uncomfortable realities of global interdependence. The UK, despite its post-national sense of Britishness and earlier global successes, has not.

If some Polish policymakers are irritated by the UK, therefore, it is because they would like it as a mature partner. Yet the British persist in treating the Poles merely as “our allies” on economic liberalism and enlargement. They don’t even recognise the potential for proper partnership with a “junior” power like Poland.


The views expressed here are personal

Tags: Poland, Sikorski, UK

  • Roderick Parkes

    Roderick Parkes is a scholar (2014-2015) at the Utrikespolitiska Institutet (UI) in Stockholm, and a ...

    Roderick Parkes

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